The extinction fo the design engineerGuest Post by Matthew Loew of DAXCON

I realize this will be a controversial subject, but I am compelled to raise awareness of how rare a breed the Design Engineer is in industry. The Design Engineer may be headed for extinction (at least in the US).

There is a HUGE difference between a design engineer and a CAD engineer. I feel strongly that the competent design engineer is one of the most critical roles in product development but there are fewer and fewer skilled engineers with these characteristics.

What defines a Design Engineer
A Design Engineer is an Engineer (Mechanical, Electrical, Structural, etc.) that uses CAD and other modeling and simulation tools to develop components or systems to a set of requirements. A CAD Engineer is typically a degreed engineer that sees their job as being consumed by the use of CAD to create the geometry that becomes product. A CAD Engineer is essentially a CAD operator/modeler/detailer with an engineering degree. My definition of a (mechanical) Design Engineer is as follows:

  • Strong basic Mechanical Engineering skills – good grasp of ME fundamentals (statics, dynamics, machine components, structures, FBD, etc.). Familiarity with Electrical Engineering concepts are beneficial.
  • Strong discipline to understand requirements, design constraints, etc. and how they can be used to drive design concepts
  • Ability to think conceptually – need to understand the appropriate level of detail to create in models (CAD, abstract engineering models, engineering spreadsheets, FE models, etc.) in order to solve problems.
  • Strong skills in CAD: Top-Down design techniques, ability to use CAD to create conceptual designs, understanding of product structure.
  • Structural Engineering skills – good structural design instincts – ability to conceptualize load-paths
  • Design Engineers expected to develop concepts in CAD tool and perform their own basic structural analysis using integrated analysis tools. Experience with optimization techniques.
  • Ability to lead design teams and conduct effective design reviews
  • Familiar with mechanisms (analysis and synthesis)
  • Familiar with fasteners, machining, welding, castings, forgings, fabrications, and other manufacturing methods
  • Ability to work in a team environment interfacing with multiple levels of management, suppliers, customers, and other departments (quality, manufacturing, purchasing, etc.)

Design Engineers – A Rare Breed
It has been very rare to find individuals with most of these skills. I find far more CAD Engineers presenting themselves for roles that require a Design Engineer’s skills. I have been able to boil the differences down to a priority given to Tools vs. Knowledge. The CAD Engineer uses a tool, the Design Engineer uses their knowledge – the tools are there to help hasten the development process.

Not every design problem is simply solved by developing geometry in CAD.

While interviewing candidates for Design Engineer positions, I always test for the ability to solve a simple statics problem and a creative design problem. I’m always stunned when a candidate can’t even recognize the statics problem, as one. Even after being told the problem is a statics problem, I’ll sometimes get “I have not solved one of those since college!” Are you kidding me?! You come here as a candidate for a Design ENGINEER position. Get with the program! A Design Engineer MUST have exceptional skills with the tools and the knowledge to use them properly. Not every design problem is simply solved by developing geometry in CAD.

Not every structural problem is a FEA problem. Not every fluid flow or heat transfer problem requires CFD. A skilled Design Engineer must know both when and how to use these tools to solve the problem or when to use closed-form calculations (most people call these calculations ‘classical’ – a term I bristle at because it makes them sound old and obsolete). For example, I do not expect a designer with access to a CFD tool to understand what a Reynolds Number is or how knowing what it is for a particular situation may influence the solution method. 

And CAD Engineers?
CAD Engineers run the risk of being overtaken at the lower end by very resourceful and skilled designers that lack a degree in engineering. While I don’t personally agree that so much overall product engineering responsibility should be given to designers with good CAD skills, the truth is that many organizations will let this happen. Designers are often paid less than engineers and if they are resourceful can appear to management to be a suitable replacement.

If you think you get what I’m talking about here and meet my criteria for a true Design Engineer, please look me up on LinkedIn. I’m always interested in networking with talented Design Engineers.

Matthew is Chief Engineer at Daxcon Engineering. You can find him on LinkedIn and on Twitter.

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Josh is founder and editor at, founder at Aimsift Inc., and co-founder of EvD Media. He is involved in engineering, design, visualization, the technology making it happen, and the content developed around it. He is a SolidWorks Certified Professional and excels at falling awkwardly.